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'Tis the season to be thankful.

At the end of the year, especially around Thanksgiving (for those in the United States), people tend to reflect on what brings them joy, contentment, and peace in their lives. Along with communing with family and eating significantly more than usual, it is a common Thanksgiving tradition for individuals to share with their families what they are thankful for, or to share general appreciations for one another. These are often shared in the form of judgments - albeit usually positive judgments, but judgments none the less.

I'll give you some examples:

"I'm thankful for my wonderful family"

"Your home is so stunning"

"This dinner is amazing. You are such a great cook."

"I'm grateful for such a successful year in my business."

All of those contain judgments (italicized). Sometimes appreciations and compliments don't land in the way that we want them to because they contain judgments, which can be disconnecting for others to hear. Even though they are seemingly positive judgments, statements like the ones above can be disconnecting if the person on the receiving end does not agree with the judgment.

Let's use the comment about the "amazing" dinner and one being a "great" cook. The person who prepared the food might think that the food they made was mediocre because they did not have enough time to give each dish the energy/ attention to detail that they think it deserves because they were stressed from taking on more responsibilities than they were used to handling. In this case, telling them that dinner is "amazing" may not be connecting for them because they have a completely different judgment of the quality of the food.

Similarly, different individuals in a family may not share the same judgment that their family is "wonderful" for a variety of reasons, and those who experience a very different reality might even be offended by the suggestion.

Basically, we never know what is going on for another person at any given time, and offering a judgment that does not fit another's narrative of the same subject is an invitation for disconnection. So, what does one do if one wanted to share appreciations sans judgment? They use Nonviolent Communication (NVC).

Using NVC, we can share appreciations without judgment by bringing the experience back to ourselves. In other words, we use OFN, or observations, feelings, and needs. Instead of giving someone a compliment (a judgment), we can share the observation, or what actually and objectively happened/is happening according to the five senses of sight, smell, touch, sound, or taste; then we can share the feelings we experience as a result of that observation; finally, we can share the needs being met by the experience. (You can see a list of feelings and needs here).

Using the same example above, "This dinner is amazing. You are such a great cook.", could look/sound like this instead:

"When I ate the potatoes, I tasted notes of garlic and rosemary" (observation). " I felt excited and delighted by that" (feeling), "and I'm really celebrating not only nourishment, diversity, and fun from the potatoes themselves, but also care and consideration from you for making this food for all of us" (needs).

Do you see how this expression is entirely based on the speaker's experience? And therefore cannot be refuted or argued? Additionally, there is no judgment here, and the person receiving this message will likely have a greater understanding of exactly why the speaker appreciated their food.

I get that if you are not used to expressing in this way, it may seem awkward or challenging. Using NVC in a way that flows and meets needs for authenticity and confidence takes time and practice. However, I will say that when I intentionally us OFN instead of compliments, I notice that the person on the receiving end, without fail (literally), is incredibly touched by my words in a way that compliments have simply never accomplished. It always leads to connection; whereas compliments sometimes do, but sometimes really really do not.

If you are curious, try using OFN this holiday season while sharing your appreciations. Let us know how it goes in the comments!

For a long time in my Nonviolent Communication journey, I exclusively used self-empathy as a tool to process interpersonal conflicts. When I was angry or triggered by something that happened in my life, I often found myself ruminating on judgments and blame of others (people around me, systems, or society at large). To get out of that space that I like to call "story land", I would use self-empathy. I'd give myself space to air out those judgments, and then I would piece out what were real, observational truths, what were just my thoughts, and what were my feelings and needs around it all.

To be clear, all of this has been quite helpful, and I still use self-empathy to process conflict in this way. However, I want to illuminate another, probably less obvious use of self-empathy beyond processing interpersonal disputes: pain perception.

Something I've noticed in the last year - specifically since I've had a child and experienced being in labor - is that physical pain is very much a mental experience. When something happens in our bodies that is out of the norm, possibly dangerous, or cause for alarm, our brains tell us so via pain. It's a pretty neat system for the most part (my judgment) because we are warned that something's up, often well before it gets catastrophic. However, pain is also a pain, and it can be distracting and even debilitating. Additionally, the stories we have around our pain can very much shape our reality in any given moment, just like stories we have about anything else. I've found that using self-empathy in these moments has changed the way I view pain, and ultimately makes pain less debilitating.

Here is an example. I recently moved from a very humid and warm climate to the high desert. In doing so, my sinuses have been through the wringer. The other day, I was hiking in high altitude and I noticed that I was having trouble breathing because my nasal cavity was basically raw (I had been bleeding from a dry nose for weeks at that point). I felt a stinging, almost burning sensation in my nose with every inhale, and I was also experiencing a sharp headache around my eyes and sinuses. As I noticed this on my hike, I then started thinking about how much longer I had to go and how fast I would need to move before the sun set. Then I started stressing out about how I was going to accomplish that with the pain I was experiencing. These thoughts seemed to exacerbate the pain; my breath quickened with my newfound anxiety (which was not helpful pain-wise); and by that point, I was no longer present with nature and having a good time doing something I love, but instead I was in a miserable, anxious story hole that I dug for myself.

It was then that I caught myself and did a little self-empathy. I noticed the facts: my body was getting the oxygen it needed to put one foot in front of the other and function in a way that I would deem "normal", I was hiking in the woods, I had 3 hours of sunlight left, and I was currently safe. I noticed my feelings, and really focused on the specific sensations happening in my body: my breath had quickened, my legs were slightly sore but in a way that I was enjoying, and of course, all the many sensations in my nose and head. And then I very intentionally did not allow thoughts about those sensations to creep in. I simply just paid attention to what I was feeling in each moment that came. I tried to define these sensations as specifically as possible, too. It wasn't just "my sinuses hurt", but rather "when I inhale, I feel a sharp, cold tingle deep in my nasal cavity and pressure behind my right inner eyebrow". Paying attention to sensations in this way - leaning into the pain - actually made the pain less painful and more matter-of-fact. Additionally, I no longer carried the stress and anxiety brought on by my stories that I was going to be miserable and slow and end up in the dark. The act of presence tends to dissipate stories, as they are typically about the past or the future.

This was all just from having awareness around what I was feeling. I hadn't even made it to a needs assessment yet. When I did think about my needs, I realized it was quite simple: I was needing comfort. With all the stories gone, I realized all I was really needing was some comfort, and I was actually okay with that, because I knew that the discomfort I was experiencing would be temporary. Not only that, but giving those sensations my full attention and having granularity around their descriptions somehow made them less painful or uncomfortable. This is a phenomenon that I have noticed time and time again. I think this is at the heart of a lot of meditative practices, actually - noticing without judging; observing the sensations without experiencing pain. Our brains are pretty incredible.

To be clear, I am not saying that you can meditate your way out of an injury. I'm simply saying that we perceive pain differently when we think of it as painful versus becoming curious about the exact sensations. This doesn't mean the sensations go away (although sometimes that has happened for me), but rather we can decide how much power we give them. This has worked for me in instances of mild to moderate pain. It was even helpful during parts of childbirth, however there were moments too intense for my mental willpower to overcome. I wouldn't say this is a solution to all the body's pains; I still use other external, tangible items for pain management from time to time. It is, however, a very helpful tool (and it's free!).

If you are curious about the process of self-empathy, or even empathy for other, check out the Intro to NVC course here. NVC is a mindfulness tool that has changed my life in so many ways, pain perception being one that I truly never imagined.

Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of NVC once said, "It's not easy to teach people to be nonviolent. It is easy to teach people to repress." There is a difference between actually being nonviolent and the experience of pushing down/away one's feelings in order to move on and survive. Repressing emotions can have detrimental consequences both physically and otherwise. A study by Pennebaker, et. al. (1997) showed a link between repressing emotions and repressing the body's immune system, resulting in an increased vulnerability to a variety of illnesses from the common cold to cancer (1). Beyond that, repressing emotions can lead to feelings of anger and resentment later on.

Nonviolent Communication teaches us how to express our thoughts, emotions, and needs while deeply considering and upholding the emotional safety of those around us. I think that many people end up repressing unpleasant emotions because they are afraid of the consequences of expression. This is probably because the people around them react in ways that are difficult to hear and process, usually because they experience blame and judgment, and not emotional safety. I actually wrote another blog post about recognizing feelings versus thoughts, and knowing how to express just feelings. You can read that here.

In other words, I believe most people do not know how to express when things are difficult for them without blaming and judging others, and because the fallout of that is usually disconnection, people end up avoiding expression, and they repress instead.

NVC effectively solves this problem. That is not to say it is easy to express without blaming and judging, but it certainly can be done, and NVC provides a framework to support people in doing so. In NVC, expression is broken down into four parts: observations, feelings, needs, and requests.

Observations are things we can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. We start with this because it does not leave room for evaluation, but rather just the objective truth. When expressing, if one starts off by saying something that another person could argue (because it is subjective), then they are already starting off on a platform of disconnection. Observations allow everyone to be on the same page from the very start.

Feelings are things we experience in our bodies, like exhaustion, overwhelm, excitement, anxiety, tenderness, warmth, etc. People often mix up feelings with thoughts. For example, "I feel like crap" is actually a judgment, not a feeling. Also, it is not incredibly descriptive, as "crap" can feel different to different people. Similarly, "I feel like I have to do everything around here" is not an actual feeling, but rather a thought that someone might have. Differentiating between feelings and thoughts, especially when expressing, is incredibly important because thoughts tend to carry judgement and blame, whereas feelings are simply things we experience in our bodies, often out of our control.

Needs are universal things we all (humankind) want in order to be content, safe, and happy in the world. There is a difference between needs and strategies, though. Often, people argue at the strategy level, when their needs are what is really important. For example, some needs include compassion, respect, protection from harm, adventure, and relaxation. There are many strategies one could employ to get any one of those needs met, and those strategies are going to be individualized. For example, one might go to the beach to meet their needs for adventure and relaxation, where another person might despise going to the beach and would rather get those needs met by taking a long drive through country roads. In other words, needs are universal; strategies are not. In NVC, we use needs language because every person has needs and can relate to a need not being met. It helps us to understand each other on a more fundamental level.

Requests are things that we ask of other people either as explicit actions they can do (action requests), or as an invitation to keep the conversation going in a particular direction (connecting requests). When someone denies a request or does not fulfill it, that does not change the nature of the relationship between them and the person who made the request, because there is trust that there are other ways to get everyone's needs met. This last piece is huge, because people often think they are making a request of another, but if that person said "no", they would be incredibly upset. That means they were really making a demand. Expression often involves a level of advocating for oneself and asking for what one wants. If someone throws out demands instead of requests, emotional safety for other goes out the window and they are back to square one.

Sticking to this formula is one way to keep emotional safety for all while still expressing one's authentic truth. Repression does not have to happen. Of course, these concepts may be easily digestible intellectually in a blog post, but much more challenging to put into practice. For a deeper dive into these concepts plus opportunities for practice, consider The Bigbie Method's Intro to NVC course. You can check that out here. Imagine a world in which you didn't have to bottle it all in, but you could express with authenticity and compassion towards those around you at the same time.

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